The Year We Gave Up Our Smart Phones

Image: Glavo.

In the year 2023 we, the humans of this beautiful earth, gave up our smart phones. Too many gardens went untended, too much important work got interrupted and too many accidents happened. In the years leading up to 2023 we came to understand our smart phones the way 20th century folks came to understand cigarettes, as addictive, unhealthy and destructive.

Just like the cigarette executives the tech billionaires got our kids hooked to their unhealthy products. They ruthlessly mined our attention for dollars. Consider it lucky when those same tech billionaires got stranded on the Bezos-Musk Martian colony. When the second great recession and fourth dot com bust of 2030 rolled around Space-X stock tanked and the tech bros couldn’t afford to pay for their return trip to Earth. Now all they have to eat is freeze dried Beef Stroganoff in a Martian prison of their own making. We used their stranding as an opportune moment to rid our culture of the things that were holding us back.

My own personal smart phone addiction recovery path began back in 2018. I was building the most complex project I’ve ever attempted, a chest of drawers. It required intense concentration and I kept getting interrupted by the ping of text messages, junk phone calls and those moments where I just had to check Twitter (a now defunct “unsocial” media company). Let’s not even get into all those moments times I caught myself watching viral cat videos when a real cat was sitting in front of me. Or the fact that I lacked the patience to read books. I came to see my smart phone addiction as not just a personal vice but also as the invisible hand of the tech billionaires who were personally interrupting my work for their own commercial gain. They had made our lives their marketplace and it was well past time to drive them out.

The tech bros had used smart phones to change our relationship to the world. Even activities like taking a vacation were no longer about gathering experiences but instead about using, “photography and social media to build a personal brand.”(1) I came to see that my smart phone got in the way of the direct experience of life. What if I just did nice things for the sake of doing those things rather than “building my personal brand?” What if a measure of success became making something that was so well put together and so appropriate for its setting that nobody noticed it?

The revolution came sooner than expected. With the tech bros locked up on Mars we freed ourselves from the shackles of “surveillance capitalism.” For a time some of us went back to flip phones but that interim period didn’t last long. In the end we all realized that we just didn’t want our work and leisure interrupted and monetized. And no longer would there be suicidal smart phone factory workers or wars over rare earth metals. We now have much more time to create, to garden, to make beautiful things, to take care of our loved ones and neighbors. We devote our time to the things that matter.

Maplewoodshop: Saving Shop Class

In U.S. schools shop class has been sacrificed to the Moloch of STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math). Ninety percent of shop classes have been eliminated with the exception of a few robotics programs. The result, ironically, is STEM graduates so out of touch with the physical world that they design things impossible to build.

Image: Maplewoodworking

Maplewoodshop seeks to reverse this trend with an innovative woodworking program that trains teachers to integrate hand tool woodworking into their lessons plans. Teachers who graduate from Maplewoodshop’s training get a rolling box containing all the tools they need to teach woodworking classes in any room. Maplewoodshop is a great example of not letting perfection be the enemy of the good: we’re not going to get shop classes back any time soon but that doesn’t mean that we can’t do something.

You can listen to an interview with Mike Schloff, founder of MapleWoodShop here.

On the Possibilities and Problems of Groups

I’ve had several conversations with friends recently about the difficulty of organizing groups. Too often a bunch of people get together for a worthwhile cause only to see numbers dwindle, enthusiasm flag and, worse, enmity and strife set in. It’s not that I can somehow claim to be above the problem. I’m guilty of disappearing, of “ghosting” my fellow group members once the initial excitement of the collective idea wanes.

Michel Foucault called our modern society a “carceral archipelago,” a prison made up of individual cells all watched over by an all seeing eye. The advertising that surrounds us has much to do with our carceral condition. Modern capitalism emphasizes our individuality–“Do it your way!”–while, thanks to social media, simultaneously monitoring our every mouse click. It’s hard to argue with Foucault’s prescience in, what I like to think of as our make-your-own-individual-burrito “Chipotle age.”

In order to accomplish any worthwhile goal we have to form groups. Human beings are not meant to be lone agents. The Inuit people I met on a trip to Greenland have a word for individualists, “wanderers,” and in the Inuit culture wanderers are considered possessed of a supernatural malevolence. While most of us don’t have to face the challenges of an arctic climate, the fact is that our individualization has left us all lonely and ineffective.

And yet, the way out of the prison is not to make forming groups an end in itself. This is Mark Zuckerberg great error. At the Senate hearing he said, over and over that his highest goal is “connectivity.” People can connect to feed the homeless, rescue animals or plant trees. Unfortunately, people can also connect to promote racism and hate, something the internet has made worse.

I wish I had an easy set of points on how to form positive, long lasting and effective groups or just how to be a better member of a group. I don’t. But, as in most worthwhile tasks, perhaps the answer is to take things one step at a time. We, in Western countries, have been on a downward individualization spiral since the 1500s. It might take just as long to climb out. Perhaps we need to begin just by sharing meals together, hanging out more and simply doing nothing, but doing nothing together.

Adam Parfrey 1957-2018

We said goodbye to Adam Parfrey yesterday. Adam was one half of the publishing team (with Jodi Wille), who put out our first book The Urban Homestead. At his memorial on Sunday he was remembered as someone who stood up for the principle of free speech, as a trickster, as the “last wild man of American letters,” and as a kind and caring husband, uncle and brother.

I want to say just how much we enjoyed working with Adam and Jodi. One of the first events we attended, after our book came out, was a huge publisher’s convention where we signed books in the Feral House/Process Media booth. Kelly and I took some time to wander the conventional hall and look at the offerings of the other publishers. It was depressing. They all seemed to be trying to put out the same books. Meanwhile, back at Adam and Jodie’s Feral House/Process Media booth a transcendentally fun party was going on. Members of the Source Family, were milling about in their flowing white robes. Pamela Des Barres dropped by to chat. Adam and Jodie promoted their books which, that year, included a profoundly not safe for work history of Weimar Berlin and the wild story of the aforementioned Source Family.

I told Adam about the sameness I had witnessed at the other booths. He explained, what I think neatly summarized his publishing philosophy, that other publishers asked the question, “How can we publish a book just like the other publishers?” whereas he and Jodi asked how they could do something different. Not only did Adam publish books that were different but he also put out books that no other publisher would get anywhere near. To say Adam’s books were controversial would be an understatement. He had a knack for combining controversy with good business instincts, no small feat in a difficult period for publishers.

We will miss Adam.

An Apology

Image: Morris & Co. tapestry.

My post early this week received some well deserved criticism from Root Simple reader Genevieve,

I often hear homeowners describing their renovation woes. But as a renter of 20 years with no end in sight due to the outrageous cost of housing who would love to own a home, at times it does rub me the wrong way. I know that it is not the intention of these posts to drive doomed renters crazy (and I know home ownership is no piece of cake), but I just want to put these woes into perspective. I dream of stressing out over what type of wood floors or molding to install in my 1920s bungalow. Instead I’m stressed out about whether my landlord will evict me, forcing me to leave the state since I can no longer afford the insane rents in California.

My apologies, especially for the misguided attempt at humor at the end of the post. Rereading it this morning in light of your comment, I can see how the post is tone-deaf. Evictions, homelessness and outrageously expensive housing surround us here in California and many other places. Rather than half-baked humor I should have looked to the example of William Morris whose novel, News From Nowhere, I just finished reading. In that novel, Morris shows us a world where economic justice, meaningful work and aesthetic beauty are related. In short, his example shows us how we can have a discussion of molding details and basic human rights while showing that these concerns are part of the same continuum. Thank you Genevieve and Lanen for your constructive criticism.